In a sandy ravine near Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, soldiers in camouflage are learning the basics of war. They are Russians and have come to fight against their fellow citizens.
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These men belong to a new unit, made up of around fifty Russians and called the “Siberian Battalion”, integrated into the Ukrainian army.
“I made the decision to go to Ukraine as soon as possible, to fight against Russia, against the regime of (Vladimir) Putin, against imperialism,” explains one of the fighters, who calls himself “Gretcha » (buckwheat in Russian).
The war in Ukraine attracted foreign volunteers from all walks of life. Most serve in the International Legion – of which the Siberian Battalion is a part – integrated into the Ukrainian army.
With their faces covered, the fighters who train do not wish to reveal their real names.
The group includes both ethnic Russians, long-time opponents of the Moscow regime, and members of ethnic minority groups from Siberia.
The Siberian Battalion is not the only Russian unit fighting with Ukraine.
Last spring, two other groups made headlines after brief incursions on the Russian border: the Russian Volunteer Corps, which has ties to the far right and hooligans, and the Russian Freedom Legion .
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the International Legion spokesperson would not say how Russians enter Ukraine, saying only that some come in small groups and others alone.
“We don’t bring them in car trunks,” he assures.
“This is not about illegal crossings. It’s completely legal,” insists the spokesperson.
The recruits are under military contract, and there are no prisoners of war, he adds.
“Gretcha” was born in Crimea, a Ukrainian peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014, but lived mainly in Moscow, where he was a medical assistant.
“We must liberate Ukraine, the homeland where I was born in Crimea, that’s my dream,” said the man, whose political views are “more liberal than in Russia currently.”
He participated in Russian opposition protests against the war, but considered them “useless.”
“In Russia there is currently a dictatorship which I am obviously very unhappy with, even if it perhaps does not affect me concretely,” explains “Gretcha”.
“I am not in prison, I am not a foreign agent but I have the impression that the State gives less freedom for its citizens. Sooner or later it will be a big concentration camp, and that is already the case,” he continues.
He left Russia in 2022, sought to enter Ukraine, but “at the beginning there was no organization, there was no information on how to enter,” he relates.
After staying in visa-free countries for Russians, often living in a tent, he finally found an organization called Civic Council, whose website recruits for the Siberian Battalion, in Warsaw.
“Need for victory”
According to “Gretcha,” the organization accepted his transit with his wife. “I spent time waiting in third countries and, at a wonderful moment, they wrote to me that we could go out, they provided the route and so we entered Ukraine,” the recruit says.
His parents do not know that he has enlisted: “They have different points of view on this war. We talked about this topic many times and we argued every time.”
Another fighter, “Chved” (Swede), claims to have left Russia more than ten years ago, “due to political persecution”, and has lived in Sweden since 2011.
“I participated in anti-government and anti-Putin activities for a long time, and I was forced to emigrate,” he says, calling himself an “anarchist.”
Other Russians who joined the Siberian Battalion include anti-Kremlin activist Ildar Dadin.
“In this war, Ukraine stands on the side of the freedom of the people,” assures “Chved,” who began fighting last summer in another unit.
“What needs to be done now is to achieve the defeat of Putin’s Russia,” he says, hoping that this will trigger political change in Russia and Belarus, its ally. “And for that we need Ukraine to win.”